Tag Archives: Vladimir Lenin

Fyodor Dostoevsky monument, Moscow

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I recently hinted I would write about this monument to Fyodor Dostoevsky soon and I’ve been itching to ever since. Because I love this thing. It seems like a great big secret right out in the open of the big city. That is not just me talking, it was actually intended that way. You see, this monument created by Sergei Merkurov was originally unveiled November 7, 1918, on Tsvetnoi Boulevard, where it would have been extremely prominent. But guess who didn’t like it there in the 1930s? Yeah, well. If it wasn’t Joe Stalin himself, it was someone very close to him, close enough to answer for the Big Man. And so this strange, wonderful piece of sculpture was relegated to the square by the building where Dostoevsky was born (see my blog of a few days ago) and in front of the former hospital where his father worked. The removal of the monument to this location took place in 1936. It is set back quite a ways from the street behind a tall fence with several locked gates. To get to the monument you have to circle way around the left side of the building complex and come in from the garages. When you finally get there you feel very isolated and you sense Dostoevsky’s isolation. There are no people around. Nobody really seems to be caring for the space – the grass is left to grow as it will and I traipsed through knee-high weeds to get some of my favorite shots here, including the two immediately below.
Those who know Dostoevsky will understand that these are quite incongruous shots, and that this is an unusual setting for a monument to Dostoevsky. He was an urban animal through and through. Tolstoy and Turgenev loved Russian nature and they described it with beauty and power. Dostoevsky, one might think, never noticed a tree or, at least, a group of trees in his life. His settings were the jungle of St. Petersburg, its asphalt streets packed with indifferent people, its artificial canals, its dark, foreboding, manmade buildings. And here he is, exiled, if you will, to a tiny patch of lush, billowing nature in the middle of Moscow. It’s almost shocking to see when you come upon it.

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The image itself is almost daunting. It is actually off-putting at first glance. You rebel against it. It is too weird and too sick. Those hands, twisted and clenched, suggest a man losing his mind. The hunched posture combined with the severe gaze aimed at the earth all suggest pain and confusion. There is in this a reminder of the fact that Dostoevsky always provided an earth-bound view of humanity in his works, as opposed to Tolstoy, who so easily slipped into a God’s-eye view of things. Dostoevsky, for all his religious sufferings, grappled with the battles that occur on earth. And when you draw back from the sculpture and consider the image in relation to the earth on which it stands, you can even see a tad of squeamishness in Dostoevsky. Is he horrified by what he sees? Is it something awful? Is that the dead pawnbroker lying in a pool of blood down there, or is it Raskolnikov refusing to repent?
Why has Dostoevsky’s drape slipped off his left shoulder? Is he in an asylum? Is this a hospital gown? Then look at the left-side profile (third photo in the next section) and you realize the extent to which this is not a realistic portrait at all. The haircut, the shape of the beard – they’re not abstract, but they are definitely geometrical or Cubist-influenced.
Of course, all of these things together provide the answer to why the Soviet authorities finally had to hide this masterful piece of sculpture. It called into question too much of what they then were preaching.
What’s interesting, however, is how strong and powerful a figure Dostoevsky makes here. Yes, he’s sick. Yes, he’s confused and, perhaps, squeamish. But look at that massive body, that thick, powerful neck rising from broad shoulders. He is, with all of his pallid sickliness, a robust, almost crushingly mighty presence. Paradoxical? Weak-strength? Strong-weakness? Well, you see, Merkurov was working his way right into the essence of Dostoevsky. Which is why, when you spend time with this work of art, you are drawn into its orbit. It’s beautiful. It works.

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Merkurov (1881-1952) was a much-lauded Soviet sculptor, winning two Stalin Prizes and an Order of Lenin. He created numerous statues of both Stalin and Lenin. He was a leader in the genre, or movement, of monumentalism. He was the creator of the three largest monumental sculptures in the Soviet Union. Many of his works – because they were of Lenin and Stalin – have been destroyed in the last 25 years. But Merkurov was already a major artist before the Soviet period began. This Dostoevsky sculpture was actually conceived in 1905 and created in 1914. Interestingly, one of the two individuals commissioning this sculpture was Lev Tolstoy. Every bit as interesting is the fact that the future great cabaret singer Alexander Vertinsky stood in as the model for the work. That, actually, partly explains the monument’s fluid, rather odd physical gestures. Vertinsky had a very distinct physical manner about him.
Merkurov studied philosophy in Zurich beginning in 1902, where he occasionally attended lectures and discussions involving Lenin. At that time he became interested in sculpture and he moved to Paris where he lived and worked from 1905 to 1907. Merkurov was considered one of the great creators of death masks, and he was specifically invited to create the death mask of Tolstoy in 1910. He created the fine sculpture of Tolstoy that stands in the courtyard of the main Tolstoy museum in Moscow. (You can see photos of that in a blog I wrote a year or so ago.)

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Marietta Shaginyan plaque, Moscow

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Marietta Shaginyan (1888-1982) is not one of the first names that comes to mind when you think of Soviet/Russian literature. I, frankly, have never read any of her work. The first time I ever heard of her was when I was in grad school and my colleague Cynthia Vakareliyska told me she was writing a research paper on Shaginyan. I had to ask who that was and Cynthia’s response was enough to make me carry Shaginyan’s name in my mind with a deep sense of curiosity  for the last 30+ years.
Shaginyan was a highly controversial figure, but she was fascinating. Of Armenian descent, she was born in Moscow, was well educated and became active in public life at a relatively young age. She graduated from the history and philosophy department of Moscow’s Higher Women’s Courses in 1912. She became friends with Zinaida Gippius and Dmitry Merezhkovsky during a trip to St. Petersburg that very year, and she went on to study philosophy in Heidelburg  from 1912 to 1914. She worked for several years as a newspaper reporter and she taught aesthetics and the history of art in the Rostov-on-Don conservatory from 1915-1918. Not bad for someone just reaching the age of 30.
Much of the rest of her life was equally full and eventful. She ended up winning most of the “great” Soviet awards during her life, including a Hero of Socialist Labor award, the Lenin Prize, and the State Prize of the USSR. You didn’t receive honors like that for nothing – see below. These awards are trotted out on the plaque that hangs by the doorway at 43 Arbat Street, honoring the fact that Shaginyan lived there from 1936 to 1961.
After spending five years in Armenia at the end of the 1920s, she returned to Moscow in 1931. And throughout the 1930s she continued her unusual life path. Suffice it to say that she entered the State Plan Academy to study mineralogy, energetics and weaving (!) and, after graduation, lectured on these and other topics at factories around the Soviet Union. She eventually earned a PhD in 1942 for her book on the Ukrainian writer Taras Shevchenko and she became a member of the Academy of Sciences of Armenia in 1950.
And I’m just skimming, here, folks.

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The Arbat today looks nothing like it did when Shaginyan lived here. There was no Moo-Moo Restaurant on the corner (see last photo below) and there was no Wetzels-Pretzels cafe next to the door Shaginyan would have used to come and go. If the sanctions and economic crash currently underway continue much longer, these places may soon disappear from the current-day Arbat too, but that’s another topic. The Arbat in Shaginyan’s day was not a walking mall, but rather a cozy, regular street with two-way traffic on it.
Shaginyan wrote her first poetry at the age of 15, in 1903. Over the next 10-15 years she published numerous books of poetry, some quite popular. Russian Wikiipedia, which I have plundered for much of the information in this little text, declares that in the ‘teens the Russian public appreciated Shaginyan’s poetry more than that of Marina Tsvetaeva. A ten-day trip to Germany in 1914 apparently caused Shaginyan’s political sensations to awaken and, after the Revolution, she wrote numerous prose works putting forth a woman’s point of view on a changing world.
One can find in the record plenty of smart-aleck comments about Shaginyan. Maxim Gorky – who, if you ask me, shouldn’t have been throwing stones – once wrote that “for her novel Changes she should have to eat a sandwich of English straight pins.”
But it’s true that she earned some of the harshest criticism.
Gaito Gazdanov, an emigre Russian writer, damned Shaginyan with strong language in 1971: “There will always be authors like Marietta Shaginyan,” he said, “who began writing poetry like this:

On this night from the Caspian to the Nile
No other maiden shall smell as sweetly as I…

and finished by writing a book in honor of Beria and spending her nights reading Lenin.”
It’s a fact that the Soviet era was a strange one, an unnatural one in many ways. People were bent backwards by the elements of the times. Some of them snapped.
I’m not here today to defend, justify or condemn Shaginyan. I don’t know enough to do any of those things. She was obviously a strong woman and, I’ll tell you what, throughout history strong women usually have not received the benefit of the doubt. Still, questions arise, serious ones. But for me they remain questions. I also know that Shaginyan was attracted to such figures as Ivan Krylov, Johann von Goethe, William Blake, Sergei Rachmaninov, Vladislav Khodasevich and many others, about whom she wrote. Khodasevich himself wrote a small piece about Shaginyan in 1925. It is available in full on one of those wonderful internet library sites. In it the poet writes with a great deal of irony about Shaginyan’s ecstatic, perhaps even disingenuous personality.
“…I recall [Shaginyan] and I want to smile. Not without bitterness, perhaps, but I want to smile. Poor Marietta! […] Who knows who her idol is these days? Or what she understands about this idol? From whom is she taking dictation for her articles, even though she doesn’t realize it herself? Who will dictate what she will write tomorrow?”
One other curious Shaginyan moment was brought to light by historian Alexander Kutenev. He declared in an interview in 2008 that Shaginyan, while researching a book about Lenin, discovered that the great Proletarian leader was gay. Shaginyan was moved to report this news to Soviet General Secretary Leonid Brezhnev, whose right-hand man Mikhail Suslov argued that Shaginyan should be shot. Brezhnev, however, called her in for a talk. According to Kutenev, a deal was made. Shaginyan would get the Lenin Prize for her book and, in return, she would bury her evidence and keep her mouth shut about her discovery.

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Vladimir Lenin apartment, London UK

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I’m cheating a bit today. I do that from time to time. Vladimir Lenin was not a writer (although his complete collected works fill 55 volumes with over 3,000 documents). He was not a cultural figure in any strict application of that term. But you don’t need me to tell you that Lenin’s influence on Russian art, literature, music and other cultural activities after the beginning of the 20th century was enormous. If you look at the list of tags to the left you will see I have “preferred” Joseph Stalin when writing about the state’s effect on Russian art. Isn’t it time Lenin got his due?
Lenin, like that ever-buzzing gnat Stalin, is on one’s mind a lot today. There are so many reasons for that, I will end up skipping most. But here are a few:
1) Lenin lived in London. as the plaque above shows, in 1908. He lived at 21 Tavistock Place (the building is now numbered 36) while he was – yes – writing one of his essays, “Materialism and Empirio-criticism.” Not exactly beach reading, but, hey – neither is anything I do. London and Russian culture are deeply intertwined. I’m not talking about Roman Abramovich and the Chealsea football team, I’m talking about Herzen and his group of intellectuals and revolutionaries in the 19th century. Vladimir Nabokov spent time in England as a young man, matriculating at Trinity College in Cambridge. That experience was reflected in at least two of his novels, Glory and The Real Life of Sebastian Knight. These days its not culture but politics, dirty politics, that dominates the Russia-England connection. The murder of former KGB agent Alexander Litvinenko, probably at the orders of Vladimir Putin, stands at the center of that.
2) As these words are typed into my computer, the world is on a Vladimir Putin watch. He disappeared on March 5 and it is currently March 14. Where did he go? Nobody knows. There are lots and lots of rumors, but one of them is that the guy who oversaw the murder of Litvinenko has masterminded the “disappearance” of Putin. Probably not, but it’s one of the rumors out there, and it’s got me thinking about London. You see, as things have gotten worse and worse in Russia for thinking people over the last three years, we see definite signs that the Russian state, under the tutelage of Mr. Putin, is returning more and more to policies, attitudes and practices originally put into place by Mr. Lenin and his wayward pupil Mr. Stalin. We are currently seeing an outflux of intellectuals and writers that may soon match the peak emigrations of the 1980s, 1970s and 1920s. It was Lenin who codified “emigration” as a useful government policy when he oversaw the so-called “philosopher ships” in 1922 and 1923. That was sort of his attempt to be humane. Rather than arrest, torture and murder them, like he was doing to many “lesser” people, he had great Russian minds put on boats and sent abroad. A book was written about this in 2007: Lesley Chamberlain’s Lenin’s Private War: The Voyage of the Philosophy Steamer and the Exile of the Intelligentsia.

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3) Lenin’s tastes in literature and art were quite simple and direct. He liked the Russian classics such as Tolstoy, but was suspect of classics like Dostoevsky. Dostoevsky, in fact, after the Russian Revolution, went into a period of 40 or 50 years in eclipse. He never quite disappeared – he was too strong for that – but his works were hard to find and were not “appreciated” by official critics. Dostoevesky, by the way, owes a certain debt to one of England’s greatest writers, Charles Dickens, and there is a Dickens-Lenin connection, as reported by none less that George Orwell, who satirized Lenin’s ideas brutally in his novels Animal Farm and 1984. In his essay “Why Socialists Don’t Believe in Fun,” Orwell wrote that Dickens’ A Christmas Carol was read “to Lenin on his deathbed and according to his wife, he found its ‘bourgeois sentimentality’ completely intolerable. Now in a sense Lenin was right: but if he had been in better health he would perhaps have noticed that the story has interesting sociological implications.”
4) Lenin was the guy who honed, if not perfected, the use of chaos, confusion, misinformation, lies, fear, terror and violence as a basis to build a political power base. (The “perfection” he left to Mr. Stalin and we are seeing this method revived in new forms under Putin – or his successor? – today.) This is why Russia inseminated world literature with such an embarrassment of riches throughout the 20th century. Ivan Bunin, Nabokov, Yevgeny Zamyatin (Orwell’s biggest direct influence) and Marina Tsvetaeva are just a few of the major figures who left or were driven out of the Soviet Union in the early years. It’s easy to see why these individuals skipped town. Look at the list of some who didn’t – Osip Mandelstam, Isaak Babel, Vladimir Mayakovsky and Vsevolod Meyerhold were all murdered in prison. Tsvetaeva chose to come back home and ended up hanging herself. That is work Mr. Lenin can take credit for.
5) Lenin liked Maxim Gorky. Gorky liked Lenin sometimes, and even liked Stalin sometimes. Solzhenitsyn hated Gorky. I often don’t trust Solzhenitsyn (while admiring him greatly), but I share his dislike of Gorky. Does that put me within the six degrees of separation with Lenin?
Whether it does or not, I feel entirely safe in stating that I and my contemporaries in Russia today are grappling with the living legacy of Vladimir Lenin. It is a world of madness, suspicion, evil plots, dastardly deeds, death and assassination.
I feel as safe saying that as Lenin surely felt safe cozying up to his books and working on his revolutionary essays in his London abode. Thanks, London. Thanks a lot.

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Lenin and Gorky plaque, Moscow

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I was going to a show at the Et Cetera Theater not long ago and I arrived a bit early. Since I had my trusty pocket Canon with me, I went out hunting. Moscow being Moscow, it didn’t take me long to find my first prey. This building at 1 Bobrov Lane (Pereulok) one day – June 18, 1920, to be exact – hosted some famous visitors. When I first glanced at the plaque I thought, “pass” – I’m not much interested in all the places that Vladimir Lenin slept, talked, listened, coughed or did whatever else he did in seemingly half of Moscow’s buildings. But at second glance this quickly became interesting. Lenin not only stopped by to visit, he brought the “great proletarian writer” Maxim Gorky along with him. But it gets even better – they came here to inspect the Red Army’s latest artillery arsenal. This building housed Moscow’s Central Artillery Department. You look in the windows today and you can’t quite get your head around the idea of tanks or gatling guns or whatever rolling around on the hardwood floors under the chandeliers. But, hey, things were a bit topsy-turvy in Russia in 1920.
After spending 26 years of my life in Russia I have become a great fan of the playwright Alexander Sukhovo-Kobylin. He has a line in one of his plays: “Believe, when people speak!” Stop and think about that a minute. Whew. Actually I should give the rest of the quote to fill it out: “Believe, when people speak! For everything is possible!” There it is, the punchline. So, hey – if somebody tells me artillery stuff was rolling around here on June 18, 1920, and Lenin and Gorky stopped by to see it, I’ll buy it. Stranger things have happened.

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But most of all what this plaque reminds me of is how creative people – basically rebels at heart, because if you’re not a rebel, you’re not much of an artist – constantly find themselves rubbing elbows with power and loving it. Okay, I’m willing to make concessions for centuries long gone when painters or poets could not survive without the patronage of the local king or prince. I’m not one to apply contemporary standards to the past. It’s not just unfair, it’s silly. You have to open up your brain a little more than that. But as we get closer to the present this kind of camaraderie makes less and less sense to me. I mean, by this time – that is, by the month, week and day that Gorky went out inspecting guns with Lenin – there were plenty of examples of creative artists taking care to distance themselves from power. Gorky was no coward. And he was no man’s fool. He had the full respect of Leo Tolstoy and Anton Chekhov. That’s a hell of an impressive calling card. So what was Gorky doing snuggling up to Lenin?
Understand me properly here. I am raising straightforward questions. I don’t intend to cast aspersions with my questions. I ask them because I’m interested in the answers. I’m struggling with my own generation these days. Every single damn day brings new horror stories about people in Russia who should know better but don’t. For example, the internet is buzzing today with the news that the popular Russian actor Mikhail Porechenkov, a member of the Moscow Art Theater and a big movie star, went down to Donetsk, Ukraine, a day or two ago, joined a group of Russian separatists, put on a “press” helmet at the local airport that has been a besieged battle zone for months, and started shooting in the direction of Ukrainian soldiers.
Pause.
Let that sink in.
Now he’s claiming he didn’t know he was wearing a “press” helmet, he swears that the bullets were blanks, and he’s even insisting that the whole thing was just a promo “shoot”… But do we really need to go farther to find the precise description of a stupid, idiotic dolt?
So, you see, when I walk past the lovely building at 1 Bobrov Lane and I see the notification that Gorky hobnobbed with Lenin in these environs, I’m thinking – is there something I can learn here? Is there something history can teach me?
Gorky pretty much threw his support behind the Marxists in 1899. (I’m just borrowing a few facts from Russian Wikipedia.) He became close friends with Lenin in 1902. At least two years before that he had become close to Tolstoy and Chekhov. Unhappy with Russian politics and life, Gorky lived on the island of Capri from 1906 (a year after the so-called failed Russian Revolution of 1905) to 1913. He again left the country in 1921 (a year after his visit to the artillery department) and lived in Sorrento, Italy, until 1928. It’s pretty much common knowledge that Joseph Stalin lured Gorky back to the U.S.S.R. by giving him a gorgeous, palatial house to live in and promising to make him the “great proletarian writer.” Gorky trusted Stalin enough to buy into that promise. After returning Gorky was photographed having friendly chats with Big Joseph S, and he occasionally interceded to try to save writers and artists from persecution. I’ve never seen a list of his failures and successes, so I don’t know how often he was able to actually help anyone. I do know that when Gorky died in 1936 there was plenty of talk, which continues today, that he was murdered by Stalin’s secret police.
I’m telling you, don’t attach yourself to governments or the people running them.

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Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow

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One of my favorite places in the neighborhood where I live. When I go out for walks my autopilot takes me right here, to the Tretyakov Gallery on Lavrushinsky Pereulok, or Lane, almost 80% of the time. The whole surrounding area is beautiful, but the gallery and the short street it stands on are especially so. Just a few hundred yards northward is the marvelous Bolotnaya Square, with its imposing Ilya Repin statue, about which I wrote a month or so ago.  The Tretyakov is one of those incredible structures that oozes Russianness. I would hazard to say that the only other building I know like it is the stunning St. Basil’s Cathedral, about which I’ll get around to showing and telling-about some day. Pavel Tretyakov, who is the individual emerging from the chaos of granite here, was one of the great Russian philanthropists and supporters of the arts. He was an avid, not to say obsessive, collector of art, with a particular interest in Russian work (as opposed to his brother Sergei Tretyakov, who collected much European art). Even when he began collecting in his 20s he had the thought in mind of creating a national gallery of Russian art.

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Indeed, Tretyakov – and the curators to whom his collection was bequeathed – put together one of the most astonishing collections of Russian art ever assembled (the Russian Museum in St. Petersburg is the only competitor, and, as one who has spent many hours in both museums, I come down on the side of the Tretyakov as the leader). There are painters here of genius that almost no one in the West, sometimes even among specialists, has any notion of. The large collection of pieces by Karl Bryullov is a self-contained treasure in its own. The room dedicated to several huge (and small) works by Mikhail Vrubel is magical. My beloved Kuzma Petrov-Vodkin and Alexander Ivanov are well represented. The downstairs room of icons  takes you on a breathtaking, unexpected journey through centuries of Russian spirituality. Interestingly, Alexander  Kibalnikov’s statue of Tretyakov, which stands in the courtyard of the museum entrance, has only been in place since 1980. From 1939 to 1980 the position of “greeter” was held down by a large statue of Joseph Stalin, and before, that, Vladimir Lenin. Take a look at these pictures and just imagine what that must have looked like.

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